Best women artists not being casual about the penis (2008)

Ellen Altfest

Super well rendered down to the last hair, vein, wrinkle, pleat, pucker, rimple, and ridge of her model's flaccid penis, Ellen Altfest's small-scale painting (and according to a few onlookers, the subject itself) had viewers squirming, gawking, laughing, and saying "eww" or "ooh la la" all last summer. The painting, appropriately titled Penis, was included in the show Altfest curated at the I-20 Gallery called "Men." In addition to being attention-getting, it connected up in fascinating ways with Gustave Courbet's notorious close-up 1866 depiction of female genitalia titled Origin of the World. While Altfest's painting isn't as stylistically revolutionary or steamy as Courbet's, her subject matter is so unusual as to make the painting, well, stick out. Altfest doesn't approach her subject with the swelling, swaggering bravado of Courbet; she deploys a Philip Pearlstein–meets–Andrew Wyeth–like realism that morphs into something clinical, hawk-like, passionate, but strangely disinterested. The bench the model is sitting on is rendered with the exact same intensity as the penis. This has the disconcerting effect of making the penis a piece of furniture and the furniture erotic. As if Altfest's shot across many bows wasn't enough for one show, across from Penis hung what some have called Hilary Harkness's "revenge painting": an image of her former Yale painting teacher being penetrated by a large cow wearing an enormous strap-on device. For anyone who has forgotten Linda Benglis's 1974 moment in the Artforum spotlight clad in nothing but a large double-headed dildo, Harkness's small, Florentine-like painting rang a few old bells while raising a few new hackles in the process.


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